I was thinking about work time and leisure time, about success and what it all means when – out of the blue – I was struck by an ear worm from the 80s. Dolly Parton has been prancing around in my head ever since – so it’s been getting pretty crowded in here – and this is what’s leaked out.

I’m pretty sure that on most days a goodly number of us do tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen, pouring ourselves a cup of ambition on the way to the start of some version of a 9-to-5. So where do our dreams and unrealised ambitions fit into this picture and how can we shift from Dolly’s (admittedly tuneful) daily grind towards achieving any or all of them? In essence, how does one become successful? Indeed, what is success?

At various times I’ve attended mindfulness workshops, entrepreneurial workshops, professional development sessions and ontological coaching seminars that have targeted variations of those question. Whilst each event was interesting in its own way, the most interesting thing is that two clear threads seems to run through all of them. Firstly, since it’s based on personal aspirations and ideals, success looks different to every individual. Secondly, the chances of recognising and achieving success are significantly increased if we set ourselves goals.

How does this whole goal setting thing work? No doubt there are as many different answers to this question as there are people to ask it, but not everyone has the time or opportunity to follow the bouncing ball through workshops, seminars, ice-breaker sessions and supplementary reading… so here’s my take on it.

I found that a pretty good starting point is to take about 10 minutes of quiet time. Find yourself a comfy spot and just sit there – on your own – for a while. No, I’m not urging you to meditate, burn incense or sit cross-legged – although feel free to do so if it’s your thing. What I’m suggesting is that you just sit quietly, take a deep breath and think for a bit. Think about what it is that you want to achieve – the big things and the small things. Don’t avoid them just because they seem unachievable, just let them all drift through your mind one by one as you sit there.

I found this part quite hard to work through and had to have a couple of goes at it before I stopped floundering, but I gradually got there. This made the next step, which is to write them all down, a whole bunch easier. Since no-one gets to see your list except you (unless you choose otherwise), it’s important not to self-edit at this point. Just write all those ideas down, then look at the list you’ve created and select four or five major objectives (goals) and a similar number of smaller ones to focus on.

Don’t panic – there’s more. Here’s where I tell you that literature on this subject suggests that it’s a good idea to set SMART goals. This is workshop-speak for goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. I wasn’t clear on what that meant at first, given that the literature also advocates dreaming big and not ruling out things just because they seem unachievable. The two ideas seemed mutually exclusive.

It turns out that there’s a trick to all of this: first you set some goals (write them down),  then you define how the goal can/will be measured (the exact $, the size of car, the variety of holiday, the number of children, whatever). Moving on, you look at the goals you’ve written down to establish whether they’re attainable – then you take the BIG goals and redefine them if they look unmanageable. Essentially, you CHUNK the big goals into smaller, achievable steps to move you along the pathway towards where you want to be. It’s that old trick of starting a journey with a single step. The last two points are to ensure that the goals you’ve set are relevant to you (not someone else) and to set a timeframe for achieving each goal (3 months, 1 year, 5 years).

Voilà! SMART goals.

What I did next was to create a vision board of my key goals. I spent a bit of time hunting around online for images that could represent my various goals visually, to give them some specific shape and clarity. I put them all together on one page, printed it out and stuck it up in my study. Why? Well, what both the chunking of the goals and then the visualisation does is to help me to stay focused on them. It provides that little nudge I sometimes need on down days and an affirmation on up days. Either way, I end up feeling like The Little Engine Who Could – chugging away “I think I can, I think I can”  as I gradually move forward.

Success is always a work in progress as some goals are achieved, some are reviewed and others are replaced by more relevant goals. What’s pretty clear to me is that the top only remains out of sight if you don’t start heading towards it. I can honestly say that my forward momentum started with me actually articulating my goals, looking at them and making some decisions about what’s important to me. Perhaps this will work for you. If you do decide to give it a go, please be kind to yourself on the journey. Dust yourself off and start again if things don’t quite work out sometimes – and celebrate your successes – no matter how small – when they do.


the little engine that could

I watched a TED talk  by Dan Buettner last week. In this he talks about why and how it is that some people live longer – much longer – than others. There appear to be a number of factors in involved, but the one that really struck a chord with me was ikigai – a Japanese word that encompasses that sense of purpose that makes one get up in the morning, one’s reason for being.

As Buettner notes, this has nothing to do with the inevitable early morning bladder pressure, or with letting the dog out or making the school lunches. It’s that thing, or combination of things, that makes each day the start of something new – full of possibilities and opportunities for experiences, big or small.

I guess a phrase like living life with a sense of purpose sounds rather New Age, a bit psychobabble and back-to-the-70s. Even so, I think that believing that life is worth living is intrinsically purposeful and is, to some degree, a self-fulfilling prophesy. Apparently a strong sense of purpose helps to boost your immune system. It also lowers  your levels of stress hormones and enables you to cope with adversity more effectively. Whether or not it makes one live longer, it certainly seems to make one live better.
Trying to figure out what my ikigai is has taken up a fair bit of contemplative time over the past few days – and the process continues. Perhaps figuring your own out will be super obvious for you, but I had to go back to basics and think about  what makes me happy. This led me to think about what activities, food and people leave me feeling calm and fulfilled. Once I had a handle on those – and there are many – I went on to considering what my short, medium and long term goals might be – the big ones and the small ones. While I was doing that I thought about how achieving any or all of those would make me feel – and found that just thinking about that made me smile and want to step out boldly. Ikigai in action 🙂


I wonder what other people do when they’re feeling unsettled? I usually go for a ride on my bicycle, peddling away any pent up angst or uncertainties, the wind in my hair and – with luck – no bugs in my teeth. Even a short ride usually leaves me feeling cheerful and more able to cope with whatever it was that sent me out on the road in the first place.

But winter in Perth can really put a spanner in the works as far as that goes. Days of drizzle and cold winds tend not to inspire me to gear up and head out – and somehow the exercise bike sitting in the corner of my games room doesn’t have much appeal as an alternative. Staring at the wall or the pool table while I pedal and the dog tries to chew my feet simply doesn’t compare to the open road.

So last unsettled week I just kept busy with work, chores and errands – until I found myself pulling in at a local cafe en route home one day. It being that time of day, I ordered something to eat, although I was slightly bemused to find myself out for lunch – alone and on a rainy afternoon. Neither of these things is my idiom – I tend to enjoy lunching out al fresco – which indicates warmer weather – and usually in company.

To add to my bemusement, my spontaneous solo-lunch venue selection was the South African shop a couple of kilometres from my house. This is not somewhere I’d lunched before, although I had been in for coffee and cake with friends a few times. So why here? Why now? And why did I feel so relaxed and comfortable about being there? Probably just a surge of nostalgia at the end of what feels like an endlessly long week, I thought.

Whatever it was, sitting there surrounded by sounds and smells from my childhood felt safe and comfortable. The background chitchat in a combination of English and Afrikaans was relaxing and the vetkoek smelled wonderful – and tasted even better. I’ve never tried making it, but vetkoek is essentially deep fried bread dough, drained and filled with some or other tasty filling. It may not sound too appealing, but I can assure you that it’s remarkably moreish, real comfort food. The outside is crisp and not at all oily and the inside is soft and fluffy, like hot bread. I chose a curried lamb mince filling (traditional) and enjoyed every finger-licking morsel of it.

The serious business of eating dealt with, I sat back with my latte and thought about how I was feeling. I’d arrived tired and slightly directionless and had ended up feeling as though I’d been wrapped in a warm snuggly blanket, looked after and cared about – even though, in reality, none of those things had actually occurred. The staff had made me welcome, certainly, and the service had been efficient and pleasant – but that was all. Nevertheless it was, well, nice to sit there – surrounded by hints from my past.

taste of nostalgia_august14I love Australia and wouldn’t swap my life here for quids, but tiredness and stress do strange things to people. No doubt I was experiencing no more than a sentimental connection to the simplicity of my childhood and to Africa, which is part of my core identity. But sitting there, with a taste of Africa still on my lips I felt at ease. As I gazed absently at the chalkboard  and started reading the names of places I’ve been to and through in the past, the words I-AM-FROM-AFRICA made me smile. Yes, I thought, yes I am.


From time to time I catch a glimpse of something or someone that triggers unexpected associations, often conjuring up odd and unusual trains of thought that stay with me from minutes to days. Sometimes this happens when I’m driving.

On the way to work I occasionally play traffic-tag with another vehicle, passing and being passed by it a number of times. Usually something makes the tag vehicle memorable. This time it was a little more unusual than average. Initially I didn’t realise that I’d somehow become part of a funeral cortege, at least not until I passed the glass-sided vehicle for the second time. Initially only part of my brain registered the unusual shape – and promptly went off to hunt through my internal database for a reference point to make sense of what it had noticed.

The hearse itself was quite tall at the back and had a lot of glass on display. The overall impression I was left with was somewhere between a Popemobile and a glass dome on wheels. The glimpse of a white coffin covered in flowers provided just enough extra visual input so that, by the time I passed the vehicle for the second time, the closest match inner-me had come up with was – of all things – Snow White.  Apparently that little part of my brain that hunts for associations and connections logged the glass bubble and floral tributes and my storage banks went straight to cross-referencing Disney movies.

snow whiteThe image of Snow White in a Popemobile-hearse, driving around Perth in search of her prince, stayed with me all day. It was quite a persistent little meme and was still lurking in the recesses when I found myself watching Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off on TV that night.  Having recently been diagnosed with both prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, Connolly has produced a programme that examines a wide range of issues relating to death and funerals. The topic was handled surprisingly sensitively, although with his usual trademark humour – including a duet with Eric Idle.

The thing I found oddest in the programme was a drive-through funeral parlour. The idea seems to be that, instead of having a formal viewing of the deceased in a chapel – which I find pretty odd to start with, the body can be laid out in what is effectively a shop window. People can then drive up – as to a take-away food outlet – to view the deceased from the comfort of their vehicle. There’s no need to get out of the vehicle at all – you can just sit there, contemplate the display, and then sign the guest book before driving off. Next please. A tidy, hands-clean sort of approach, I guess.

drive thru funerals1

Connolly also attended a six-day international funeral directors convention & expo in Austin (Texas). He went along to have a look at some of the products that he might end up using at some stage. Coffins of every sort, from cardboard to oak, with or without silk lining and ornate handles and optional original artwork, were on display. They provided a real eye-opener as to just how much a bereaved person can be fleeced for by less-than-scrupulous vendors.

Then there was the mushroom burial suit – a full body suit that’s embroidered with threads infused with mushroom spores. These work with in conjunction with an externally applied liquid spore compound to decompose the body within the suit. What wasn’t clear was just how long it would take for the mushrooms to do their work. I rather like the idea of the body being recycled this way, although I did wonder about what happens to the residue – and to the mushrooms – afterwards.

And then there were hearses – big, small, showy, motorbikes with sidecars and… the Snow White Popemobile! It exists! I had started to suspect that I’d halfway invented the vehicle, inner-me elaborating wildly once it had latched onto the idea. But there it was, in amongst all the other snazzy vehicles. It didn’t actually have a glass dome – (inner-me did invent that bit) – but other than that it was fairly Snow White-ish.

Ford Cardinal-Hearse Coleman-Milne

I wonder if the availability of this style of hearse indicates a shift in how society is starting to view death. Perhaps it’s just a variation on the drive-through viewing option. I’m not sure how I feel about that, having been socially conditioned to avoid public displays of – well – pretty much any sort, really. But I can see that being ‘allowed’ to grieve – to acknowledge death and grief publicly – could help people to deal with loss and to move forward with their lives. It might also enable others to manage their response to the grief that friends and acquaintances experience, without feeling awkward or inappropriate.

I’ve been told a number of stories of how people will go out of their way to avoid contact with someone who has experienced the death of a loved one, almost as though it’s contagious. Perhaps having death on display, whether in a Snow White hearse or a drive-through funeral parlour, might start to move society away from this cultural death denial. It might allow death to be more openly acknowledged as part of life. On the other hand, it might simply be yet another example of a society obsessed with portraying itself as colourfully and noisily as it can at all times.

Either way, I do rather like the idea of Snow White being driven around town, actively seeking out her prince rather than waiting for him in the woods surrounded by sad bunnies and bambies with big eyes.


The title of this post is partly plagiarism at work, I’m afraid. So, before going any further, I’d like to offer both my thanks and apologies to Joan Anderson. Although I tried really hard, this particular phrase resonated so strongly that I couldn’t come up with anything else that meant the same things to this particularly ‘unfinished woman.’

At various times over the years I’ve come across writing that’s spurred me to muse on aspects of my personal development. Last week I picked up Joan’s memoir (A year by the sea – thoughts of an unfinished woman) and was swept up in her uncomplicated prose and superbly crafted storytelling. Reading about her year of self-discovery was in many ways like reading parts of my own story and those of many of my female friends – women of a certain age (no longer young, but definitely not yet old) who are finally grasping that our journeys are anything but over.

We’re living longer, we’re working longer, and many of us are fitter and stronger than our mothers were at similar ages.  With all of that is the emerging realisation that we’re ‘unfinished’, that we’re works in progress meandering through life towards new understandings of who we are, what we want and where we’re headed.

Why is it that so many of us only come to realise that we need to look after ourselves and our own development when we’re into our 50’s? Will our daughters fare better, I wonder? Will seeing us making these journeys help them to understand sooner that they don’t need to live their lives through the scripts of others?